Wine: Ambrosia of the Jews

By | Mar 20, 2013
Wine Talk of the Table

The Torah is full of oenophiles: One of Noah’s first actions after emerging from the ark is to plant a vineyard, and the Five Books mention wine at least 16 times along with grain and olive oil as the fundamental economic and nutritive commodities of ancient Israel. In the Talmud, the second-century scholar Rabbi Meir even wonders whether a grape was the seductive fruit of Eden.

Grapes were a natural agricultural fit for ancient Israel, given the land’s climate, and wine production grew into a well-developed industry. In the town of Gibeon, about 4.5 miles north of Jerusalem, archaeologists in the 1950s and 1960s discovered underground wine-making facilities dating to the pre-Babylonian period, including clay jugs inscribed in ancient Hebrew with the names of vineyard owners and towns to which the wine was to be delivered. Late last year, archaeologists discovered the remains of two separate ancient wine presses, also in the Jerusalem area. And evidence of Israeli wine exports dates back to around 3150 BCE, says Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “The first wine we’ve identified chemically in Egypt comes from the Jordan Valley and the adjacent hill country,” he says.

Jews continued making wine in the diaspora. In Muslim-ruled countries such as Spain—where Muslims were religiously prohibited from imbibing—Jews owned vineyards where they primarily produced kosher wine. The same was true for Jews who lived along the Rhine, according to Kevin Goldberg, a post-doctoral fellow at Brown University who studies the central European wine trade. “They would grow grapes and make wine, or they would buy wine locally and ship it to other communities not in wine-growing areas, so that they could have access to wine for ceremonies,” says Goldberg. Jewish law, which prohibits anyone other than observant Jews from being involved with the wine-making process after the grapes have been crushed, created a demand for Jewish-manufactured wine.

After the French Revolution and emancipation, business opportunities for Jews expanded. “Jews really picked up steam in getting involved in non-kosher wine and a more international aspect of the trade,” says Goldberg, adding that they brought business acumen to the wine industry. “The Jews were the first to vertically integrate,” he says. “Most grape growers just had the ability to grow, and merchants didn’t have the ability to grow, so Jews were able to combine those trades into one.”

This led to hostility from some non-Jewish winemakers. Starting around the 1850s, laws sprang up throughout Europe prohibiting certain practices, such as adding sugar to grape must or diluting the juice with water to de-acidify it. The laws were “subtle ways to keep Jews marginalized in the trade,” says Goldberg. Though de-acidification was widely used—by both Jews and non-Jews—to doctor a bad vintage, Jews were unfairly “scapegoated. Oftentimes the justification is that the Jews are doing it and ruining the trade.”

The kind of wine Jews drank varied with the local agricultural landscape. Whereas those in western and southern Europe preferred dry wine, Eastern Europeans—accustomed to a climate where grapes didn’t flourish—drank wines made from raisins or berries, leading to a sweeter, more intensely flavored beverage. When they immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century, their syrupy drink became the standard for the country’s burgeoning Jewish population, especially on the East Coast. Schapiro’s, America’s first kosher wine company, opened in 1907, operating out of a Lower East Side cellar winery until 2001. Manischewitz was founded in Brooklyn in 1935, and Baron Herzog got its start on the Lower East Side after Eugene Herzog arrived from Czechoslovakia in 1948.

Another reason sweet wine came to dominate the East Coast market is that Concord grapes, native to New York, require significant added sugar to make palatable wine. Jeff Morgan, winemaker at the kosher Covenant Winery in California, says that Concord grapes, part of the species vitis labrusca, “are the wrong species of grapes to make fine wine. God made them for the animals of the forest to eat, but I don’t think God intended anybody to make wine out of them.” California vintners, however, could grow a wider selection of grapes from the more wine-friendly species vitis vinifera. But although Jews have been prominent in California wine-making circles since the mid-19th century, it wasn’t until 1979 that Ernie Weir produced the state’s first halachically permissible wine, under the label Hagafen.

Whether it comes from vitis labrusca or vitis vinifera grapes, kosher wine is a challenge to make. Workers who operate machinery and even waiters who pour the wine must be Shabbat-observant Jews, or else the juice is rendered traif. To get around this, some winemakers heat the wine, through boiling or flash-pasteurizing; Jewish law stipulates that if the drink is considered cooked (or mevushal, as it is known), anyone can handle it without impinging upon its kosher status. Although some winemakers say heating ruins the wine, several companies have found ways to produce tasty mevushal wine, or to produce non-mevushal—but still kosher—wines in varietals such as chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and chenin blanc.

And although sweet kosher wine still has its devotees, an increasing number of Jewish consumers are buying drier wines that taste more like their non-Jewish counterparts. Last year, Wall Street Journal wine columnist Lettie Teague produced a video guiding viewers through some of the best kosher wines, among them a Côtes du Rhône, a syrah and a $65 bottle from the Israeli Domaine du Castel label (“their answer to Bordeaux,” she says). “We’re using the same methodologies that non-kosher winemakers are using to make the best wine we can,” says Covenant’s Morgan.

In Israel, upscale wineries are booming in an industry that was largely pioneered by the powerful Rothschild family, who invested in Israeli vineyards beginning in the 1880s. One of them, the Carmel Wine Growers Cooperative (now Carmel Winery), has been in operation since 1906. Both kosher and non-kosher wineries are making vintages acknowledged as the best in the country’s long history of wine production, which has come full circle. “There are a lot of wineries that have been set up in the same places as antiquity now, in the Golan and the Galilee,” says University of Pennsylvania Museum’s McGovern, with vintners growing new grapes on the very same land as their ancient predecessors.

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